Saturday, November 25, 2006

Tipsy Roadtripping: Wine-Tasting in Solvang For Only $75.25!

I recently acquired a fulltime job. So, naturally, the first I thing I did after celebrating the return of a regular weekly paycheck--and mourning the end of my immensely enjoyable 15 month ride of my non 9-6pm freelance writing lifestyle--was look into a quick pre-"start of work" vacation.

With limited time to plan and limited resources (unfortunately, I still have to work for two weeks first before getting paid), I decided on a quickie wine-tasting roadtrip to Solvang. This was also my first roadtrip with Ugly Shoe Boy so hopefully any potentially awkward 'first roadtrip together' moments would be softened--or forgotten--under the tipsy haze of a trip dedicated to the consumption of alcohol...because, let's face it, isn't 'wine-tasting' just a sophisticated and more acceptable form of day drinking? (For those who missed reading about my first encounter with him, Ugly Shoe Boy is not ugly, but in fact quite enough to distract me into buying a pair of ugly running shoes--and consequently, go out on dates--with him.)

Solvang is an almost creepily quaint Disneyland-esque Danish town filled with tudor architecture, fudge shops, Danish pastry bakeries, wine-tasting rooms and a Best Western adorned with a giant windmill facade, as seen in the movie Sideways. Solvang's helpful official website, lists a bunch of hotels, including Wine Valley Inn, which had rooms for $120 but let me book their manager's special for $62 which I found on directly with them instead; making the Dutch-style Inn cheaper than even the chain motels in the area (Vagabond Inn and Best Western are in the $80's range). Plus, they include free breakfast and about $30 worth of free wine-tasting coupons when you check in! Score! Our 'clock tower' suite with a queen was really spacious and came with a cozy wood-burning fireplace. (Each room is different with different amenities and sizes so make sure to ask for exactly what you want; our room was #216.)

Although there's not too much to do in Solvang except wine taste, eat Danish pastries to absorb some of the alcohol and then wine taste some more, so you feel better about doing another activity which doesn't involve consuming vino, it's worth it to wake up a little earlier to check out the nearby Nojoqui waterfalls (about a picturesque 10 minute drive along Alisal Rd and then an easy 10 minute stroll to get to the falls.)

There are 12 tasting rooms within Solvang's 4 block radius town ($5-7.50 per tasting). Our game-plan was to hit up the ones we had coupons for free tastings first.

Our first one, Royal Oaks on Copenhagen Drive, was so-so, but they had a fun strawberry/cotton-candy tasting Rose and our wine pourer had great recommendations for which other tasting rooms to hit and also her preferred wineries in nearby Santa Ynez (Rideau for it's historic tasting room and English gardens, Galney Vineyards for their in-depth winery tour, Buttonwood for Sauvignon Blanc and Sunstone for its 'Under the Tuscan Sun' gardens and setting.)

We got side-tracked by our original free-only drinking tour when we came across the Olive House, a wine & olive tasting spot. It was $7.50 to sample both but you're allowed to share one tasting between two. The wines, which included a selection of Pinot, Merlot and Syrahs, were good but our palettes were clearly more fine-tuned for olive tasting; ("Ooh, this pepperjack cheese stuffed olive has some kick and I like how that almond-stuffed olives give a good unexpected crunch". "I thought the blue-cheese stuffed one would be my favorite but the garlic-stuffed spicy cajun was way tastier don't you think?" ). Despite the stingy, light-handed pours, the wine-tasting stop was well worth it just for the olives.

We took full advantage of the tasting rooms opening right at 10am so were already quite tipsy at 10:45am. Our last stop before lunch was Presidio Winery, which ended up being our favorite tasting room; there were snacks and our wine-pourer had a way with words to describe the wines to the non-wine savvy ("yes, so many layers in this wine, it's a party in your mouth! It's a party in your mouth!") and was informative with what food each wine should be paired with. Both Ugly Shoe Boy and I liked their slightly sweet white wine, Gewurztraminer--which really was a party in your mouth. ($12)

We stumbled into the Solvang Restaurant to sample their hyped-up Aebleskivers (Danish versions of beignets covered with raspberry jam) and wait out our growing tipsyness so we could drive to the nearby wineries. The Abelskivers were ok and a good deal at $2.50, but I was expecting more of a crispy coating and doughy beigney consistency inside than its soft, bready texture.

Back on the road and taking our own mini-Sideways tour, our first stop was the Fess Parker Winery. We were still too buzzed to taste any wine so just checked out the pretty picnic grounds and stately looking wine-tasting room filled with bottles and Daniel Boone/Davy Crockett paraphenalia.

Next up was the Firestone Winery, which felt very commercial and impersonal. Our pourer was on auto-pilot with his recited info that really wasn't that informative at all "2002 Syrah: aged 14 months in French and American oak barrels" and would walk off between each pouring to repeat the same info to other wine-tasters before returning to ask if we wanted to purchase the bottle. Maybe the Firestone wines are also more fullbodied, which I'm not a big fan of, but their slightly harsh-tasting wines were also my least favorite of the trip. For the $10 tasting fee, we also got a Firestone souvenir glass and complimentary wine-tasting at the winery next door.

Solvang is perfect if you're looking for a quick and affordable LA getaway on the fly. We planned it only a few days advance, spent minimal $$, had plenty of time to stop off to walk around and eat at Santa Barbara's downtown State Street and UCSB's Isla Vista on our way back to LA and we were pleasantly drunk for about 80% of the trip--all for less than $100!

And, I didn't even get a hangover on my first day of work the next day.
Do the math:
Wine Valley Inn for two: $68 inc. tax
Wine-tasting for two: $17.50
Royal Oaks, Presidio ($0), Olive House ($7.50), Firestone ($10)
Solvang Restaurant: Abelskivers & lunch $15
Dinner at Joe's Cafe in S.B.: $35
Burritos at Freebirds in Isla Vista: $15
Total: $75.25 each

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Santee Alley: Designer Knockoff Shopping Spree

Last Saturday, Chaya and I made the pilgrammage to downtown LA's discount shopping mecca; Santee Alley--literally an alleyway crammed with shops pandering super-cheap knockoff designer handbags, Melrose Ave-esque apparel and cute & surprisingly comfy $20 shoes. Personally, I find the scene too hectic to hit up more than twice a year but late fall is a good time to go since they have great bargain boots (my tan faux ultra-suede knee high moccasins purchase ($25) from last year are still getting compliments, ditto my $40 Melie Bianco velvet heart hobo knockoff) and you also need to allow about a month's lag time between the current season's fashions hitting mainstream stores and the cheaper versions showing up at Santee Alley.
(Previous Purchases)

Located in the Fashion District with hectic parking and even more hectic crowded streets, the slightly seedy Santee Alley isn't for the casual shopper--but the bargains are worth braving the questionably legal shopping experience and the even more questionable parking options. There are plenty of area lots available for a flat rate of $6-8; all are sketchy looking but, for what it's worth, so far, each time I've returned from my shopping excursions to find my car fully intact and not stolen, which is all you can really ask for.

It definitely helps to go with an agenda so you don't get sidetracked along the alleyway's more random bargains ($1 CD's & DVD's, pet turtles, luggage sets). Today, mine was shoes and Chaya's was jeans and boots.

On our first stop, Chaya found some knee-high chocolate brown suede mocassins ($30) while I picked up a pair of wedges for $20 and authentic Converse sneakers for $25, half the regular retail price.

We then went next door and a vendor immediately came over and started mumbling "True Religions? Sevens? $55". We had entered a designer denim haven! The key is not to question if the jeans are fakes (or stolen) but just bask in the glow of finding greatly discounted designer denims. They didn't have any in my size (I guess the box of 27"'s didn't fall of the truck that morning) but Chaya scored a pair of rockin' Rock & Republics for $55. The only downside is that they don't have dressing rooms, but if the store next door has a changing room so you can try them on and come back for an exchange if it's not the right size. For those who couldn't care less about Citizens of Humanity vs. Antiks, they also have a plethora of no-name booty-enhancing jeans for only $10.

Buoyed by our morning bargains, we bypassed some of the outdoor clothing stalls and went into the alley's more expensive "real stores" (as in, they have dressing rooms, don't bargain and take credit card); more expensive still means $20 jersey dresses, $12 yoga pants, $5 red pleather belts and $11 tops.

After hour 5 of our shopping day, we entered a shoe store so we could pretend to try on shoes for an excuse to sit and rest. After "trying on" a pair of red suede flats for 45 mins, we were asked if we were going to buy them "otherwise no-one else wil lwant to try on a pair of shoes you've worn for such a long time". I figured $20 was a pretty good deal for a pair of whimsical new red shoes and an nearly an hour of rest-time in their store.

Although handbags are Santee Alley's main draw, this time we left empty handbag handed. However, we did have fun bargaining down a Chloe replica for $30 and sifting through the vendor's "catalog" of inventory: a binder with pages of photos of celebs carrying prized designer bags ripped out of In Touch and Star Magazine.

I got a full days exercise (walking from store to store for 6hrs) and shopping bags full of non-cheaplooking purchases (3 pairs of shoes, a top and belt) for less than $80.

Some tips before you go:
Bring Cash!
Spanish-speaking skills helps during the bargaining process.
Ladies: Wear flip flops, a tank/tube top and a skirt so you can try on stuff over your clothes since dressing rooms are rare.
The second jean store on the right handside is the one that carries the designer denims; the brand jeans may be hidden in boxes behind the cheaper no-name brands so make sure to ask for them.
Pleather replica bags shouldn't cost much more than $30, and designer fakes with real leather no more than $70.
If you need a mid-shopping snack, the fruit cart by the scary-sounding 'Alley Hotdogs' actually has healthy and hygenic-looking fresh fruit cups $2 and granola parfaits for only $2.50

Santee Alley
Alleyway between Olympic and 11th, Downtown L.A.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Bergamot Station: With 30 Galleries All Aboard With Free Admission

My friend Carrie and I decided to go for an artsy lunchtime excursion last week and stopped by Bergamot Station in Santa Monica. The art gallery complex (a defunct trolley station which ran from the late 1800's-1953) boasts a smorgesboard of 30+ galleries featuring modern art installations, photography, sculptures, sketches and paintings as well as jewelry, fine-art paper and a charity boutique filled with designer and vintage clothing.

The good thing about Bergamot is that you don't really need to know what specific exhibit is going on because, with 30 options, chances are, you'll run into something pretty interesting. Highlights from our recent visit included cardboard furniture from various artists including Frank Gehry (Bobbie Greenfield Gallery) and the 2nd Annual L.A. WEekly Biennial exhibit of top selections from L.A. area art schools (Track 16 Gallery & Minispace) and the Flow exhibit of artwork painted on limited edition surfboards (Frank Picutres/Off Main Gallery).

Getting arty worked up an appetite and we lunched outside at the Bergamot Cafe. Featuring your basic cafe fare (soups, salads and sandwiches), we both ordered the 'Bundle Of Joy' half sandwich/half salad combo ($7.39). My greek salad and roast beef & avocado sandwich wasn't amazing but wasn't bad either. You can probably find other better eateries nearby but for its on-premises convenience (and selection of fun boutique sodas...I had the Bundaberg Ginger Brew $1.79) the cafe is totally doable.

Getting there is easy, there's plenty of free parking and free admission where you can just wander from adjacent gallery to adjacent gallery until you're all arted out. Closed Mondays and Sundays, but it's definitely an interesting weekday excursion you could fit during your lunch hour or Saturdays for a more leisurely arty walkabout.

Bergamot Station
Bergamot Cafe
2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica
Hours: 10 a.m. - 6 p.m. (Tuesday - Friday)
11 a.m. - 5:30 p.m. (Saturday)

Friday, October 13, 2006

Crazy Fish Sushi: Crazy Good Prices

After my sushi-licious splurge-fest at Katsuya last week, I needed to downgrade my sushi spending for my next outing so Chaya's suggestion of Crazy Fish the other night was perfect. Known for generous, fresh, creative--and totally affordable-- sushi, Crazy Fish has sporadically been a favorite spot of mine since college but for some reason I alternate between spurts of Crazy Fish obsession and spurts of forgetting about it. I haven't eaten here in over a year so I'm glad Chaya reminded me of it.

It's located on the corner of Olympic Blvd and Doheny, but if you come after 7pm, just look for the small crowd outside (they don't take reservations so expect a little bit of a wait.) Inside the corridor-shaped spot is Beverly Hill's version of hole-in-the-wall (pastel painted walls with stencilled fish, formica tables, bright lighting). They have some hot udon and tempura dishes but it's all about the sushi rolls here; there are over 20 creative--if not authentic--rolls to choose from (in addition to more traditional spicy tuna and spider rolls etc, there's also the Oy Vey! sashimi platter with salmon and red onions and the smoked salmon and cream cheese Jewish Roll.)

Chaya ordered a spicy tuna roll with avocado and cucumbers while I got a modified Kinta Roll (I switched spicy tuna with spicy yellowtail with no mayo, which is then wrapped in tempura-fried seaweed and drizzled with eel sauce). They were big, messy and totally delicious. There were other rolls that piqued our interest (Sno-Cone Roll: albacore-scallion wrapped in cucumber, Crazy Fish with yellowtail, salmon, tuna and asparagus, shrimp tempura roll topped with tuna) but with about 12 gigantic pieces with the diameter of a sliced tennis ball per order, we were too full to order more after our one roll each.

Our total bill was $17 for two heaping rolls and a pot of green tea; leaving both our tummies and our wallets satisfied. My ten bucks was doubly well-spent when I realized that my Kinta Roll cost less than the $10 bottle of Voss water we were charged at Katsuya.

Crazy Fish
9105 W Olympic Blvd, Beverly Hills,

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Calling All Fishermen: Gladstone's Free Lobster Dinner Deal

If you have some talent with lobster nets, head over to Gladstones this month. During the month of October (which is apparently Spiny Lobster Season), anyone who brings their own live lobster catch to the Malibu restaurant, the chef will have it cooked and served with two sides, sourdough bread and a cup of their tasty clam chowder--entirely gratis!

Yes, BYOL (bring your own lobster) and get a free lobster dinner with all the trimmings. The deal ends at the end of this month so you have 20 more days to catch your very own live crustacean. Call Gladstones for more info: 310/454-3474

1700 Pacific Coast Highway, (cross street Sunset Blvd), Malibu

Sunday, October 08, 2006

"Two Turntables and a Microphone" in Downtown LA: L.A. Weekly's Detour Music Festival

Last night Chrissy and I attended LA Weekly's 1st Annual Detour Music Festival in downtown L.A. Headliners Beck, Queens of the Stone Age and Basement Jaxx were accompanied by 15 other Myspace-favorite acts including OH! NO! OH! MY!, Blonde Redhead, !!!, The Like, Of Montreal and DJ sets by Kid Millionaire, VHS or Beta and Shepard Fairey (Complete lineup here).

I'm a fan of the musical medley you get from multi-billing festival lineups, but recent outings to Coachella, Weenie Roast, Acoustic Christmas etc have become a labyrith of stringent security don'ts, mainstream sponsorship booths, overpriced beer gardens and way too many people. Maybe because this was the first annual concert with a smaller turnout or the lineup just attracted a more mellow crowd, but everything about Detour (from easy & close-by $5 parking, short &/or no lines, friendly security peeps who let you stand on street signs and the like to get a better view) was relaxed and about the music-- just what good concerts are supposed to be like.

Saran Wrap Car and Glowing Seahorse Art Installations

Yes, there's still the lineup of booths, but alongside the questionably religious act of recruiting concert-goers--the Kabbalah Center; with a sign on their booth offering a free red Kabbalah string "just for signing up now!"--there were also non-run-of-the-mill booths hawking cool, non-concert related clothing such as $10 Indian silk dresses and skate/street label Royal Cheapskates as well as a booth highlighting the pro-tree planting charity, TreePeople (which received a portion of the proceeds from the concert.) You could also feed yourself between sets without spending the equivalent of a concert ticket (which was a very reasonable $35); affordable food stall choices included $3 pad thai, $4 fried artichoke hearts and $2 for delicious custard puffs from Beard Papa.

The festival started at 2pm, but we didn't get there until 7pm; just in time to catch Basement Jaxx's frenetically-happy set, eat a Beard Papa Cream Puff and find a good spot for Beck. His 1hr set was a condensed version of his show at the Wiltern which I saw a couple months ago (complete with the puppets, dancing bears and dinner party set up), but with loud and clear acoustics, a grand entrance with Loser transitioning into back-to-back songs covering his entire discography, new songs from his new album, The Information, a long encore and a 'Snakes on a Tour Bus' short featuring his puppet alter-egos, I thought this show was tighter and more energetic than his Wiltern show.

Although we were only a couple blocks from Skid Row, with two outdoor stages flanking City Hall, another DJ stage inside an old church, art installations displayed outside the courtyard of the CalTrans Building and the Downtown LA skyline providing a twinkling backdrop to the concert venue, it was really cool to be able to enjoy a picturesque and bustling Downtown during night-time.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Chi-town: Eating, Drinking and More Eating Highlights

I recently took a long weekend mini-vacation to Chicago with my friend Melissa a couple weekends ago. I've visited Chicago a few times for work in the past but have never had the chance to explore the city.

Neither of us did much research on Chi-town before our trip and I wished I had asked around more for suggestions beforehand. So, next time you're headed to Chicago, here are a few Chicagoan highlights which we stumbled upon while we were there. (We stayed in downtown Chicago by the Loop but mainly went out in Wicker Park.)

SHARING A CAB FROM MIDWAY WITH A STRANGER: Opposed to the rushed and rude LAX taxi stand guys, the Midway Taxi guys are friendly, fast and will do their best to help you save money on the fare; if you want, they will pair together single travelers traveling into the city together for a cheaper fare so make sure to ask. ($22 for a ride into the city alone, $14 if you share with a stranger). It's about 5 bucks more from O'Hare, but you can also share there too.

DOWNTOWN CHICAGO LUNCH: We stayed at the House of Blues Hotel,(pretty pricey but cheaper on, garish (in a good way), tripping-on-acid style decor, ultra-friendly service and patient concierge desk which we hounded for suggestions before every time we stepped out of the hotel). Both concierge's we talked to suggested lunch at Rockit Bar & Grill , an upscale brewery a couple blocks from the hotel. Their roasted butternut squash soup studded with pomegranate seeds and truffle oil($4) and Southwest BBQ Chicken Salad($12)were so good that we decided to return for lunch the next day rather than try something else new; a big deal considering I'm typically all about exploring as many new spots as possible. Their brown sugar-dusted sweet potato fries and cheesy mac and cheese ($5 each)also helped persuade us.

WICKER PARK/BUCKTOWN (off the blue line on the L): I was told by several people that Wicker Park/Bucktown area is the artsy/edgy, Chicago-style version of L.A.'s Silverlake/Los Feliz. It's hard to equate artsy/edgy with sports bar-laden part of town but given Chicago is a sports bar-laden city in general, it was definitely the spot we found with the most bars, restaurants and boutiques that we liked, including;

Bongo Room: Chocolately goodness for breakfast. We couldn't decide between the chocolate-banana pancakes or the lemon pancakes with fresh raspberry coulis so we ordered one of each and shared. The veggie croissant breakfast sandwich we shared would have been better toasted but it's all about the pancakes here anyway. (Total bill $21) The wait is supposedly horrendous during the weekends but we got a eat immediately on a Monday morning. Check out blogger RachelleB's site for pics of the decadent-looking pancakes.*There's another location in downtown Chicago by the South end of Grant Park too.
Bravo Tapas & Lounge: We hit up one of the more shi-shi'ish spots in Wicker Park area for our last night. Generous tapas helpings of seafood salad, eggplant drizzled with Moroccan honey, seared scallops over mashed sweet potato and prosciutto-wrapped asparagus, potato frittata and spicy papatas bravas were pretty good, if not amazing, yet ended up being a little pricey ($70 for two) but that also included our pineapple mojito and Rose Cava and a flamenco show.
Danny's Tavern IN BUCKTOWN: After a few misses (Celebrity: We were lured by the fun-looking neon $$$ signs outside. The sleek, try-hard loungey atmosphere was broken by the NFL game playing over the bar. And the crowd of suits hovering under it cheering. Cans: as in 'beer cans', yeah....a little too "frat-boy sports bar" for our liking and Lakeview Broadcasting Company it sounded like it had potential based on this citysearch review: but being located in Boystown, it was a little more gay and less coed as we would have liked), we finally found this fun Wicker Park bar housed in a cute little wooden house-looking exterior located on the corner of Damen & Dickens. The crowd was cool and the danceable tunes even better(soul/funk,salsa-tinged rock, reggaetone medleys and then more soul/funk); making a night of dancing at Danny's one of the highlights of our trip.
Rodan: Yes, named after Godzilla's monster nemisis. Our skater-punk waiter at Rockit recommended this Wicker Park spot. This diner-looking lounge had a three-piece band playing in the back area but was pretty chill where we were sitting by the counter bar. It wasn't super-mingley but had interesting people-watching (a hetero-guy wearing an arm scarf, a couple sightings of both sexes rocking the folded bandanna look)and fun drinks (I got a fruity vodka martini with boba balls).

Millenium Park: Gorgeous way to spend our last sunny afternoon in Chicago; a fanciful Frank Lloyd Wright metallic sculptured outdoor ampitheater, picturesque, side-by-side background lake and skyscraper views and snowglobe-like mirrored jellybean which reflected it all.

AIRPORT FOOD: Facing the equally disheartening prospects of skipping dinner on my 4 1/2hr flight home or worse, dining out of a Nabisco Snack Box, I hit up the food court at Midway. Lo and behold, saving airport travelers from crappy food was a Midway outpost of the famed Harry Caray's steakhouse. And, unlike McDonalds where LAX Big Macs cost more than one a mile away from the airport, the prices weren't jacked up either. It was crowded like a sports bar but I got seated right away. My gigantic chopped salad with chicken, pancetta, avocado, gorgonzola cheese and mixed greens in sweet herb vinaigrette ($10.95) was so delicious, I stayed and ate the entire heaping plate even though they had started boarding.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Brentwood Katsuya Sushi: Brentwood Chic with Brentwood Prices

Satisfying a rare mood to splurge--as well as our frequent mood for enjoying spicy tuna topped crispy rice cakes--Jess and I decided to try the recently opened Katsuya restaurant in Brentwood last night. Although famed sushi chef Katsuya Uechi's other two namesake Katsu-ya restaurants in the Valley have more of a stripmall, hole-in-the-wall ambience, by teaming up with designer guru Phillipe Starck for his latest Westside addition, the slick and stylish restaurant has more in common with the sceney spots such as Koi, Geisha House and Hyde where the chef's also lended his menu. Unfortunately, this new spot also has inherited the same slighty inflated prices as sceney spots such as Koi, Geisha House and Hyde.

The decor is quite stunning; outside, flaming torches mark the dining spot on the corner of San Vicente and Montana. Inside, sleek touches include white walls hung with glossy photos of shiny Geisha-red lips and heavy kohl'ed eyes, white leather sofas, 3 streamlined sushi and robata bars and a rock'n'roll-edged backroom with multiple silver-mounted mirrors and low cushy seating.

We didn't have reservations but were seated right away at the robata bar. Our waitress handed us an overwelming menu (in addition to four pages of cold, warm and hot dishes, the menu also includes a full selection of sushi and robata choices) but also helpfully highlights Katsuya's five most popular picks; seared albacore with crispy-fried onions ($16), yellowtail sashimi with jalapeno ($18), crab hand rolls ($12), rock shrimp tempura ($14), and the famed spicy tuna crispy rice cakes ($12). We took her recommendation on the last three--which all warranted their high recommendations; the hefty fresh crab rolls were wrapped in soft, black sesame-dotted soy paper, I don't normally like fried dishes but the delicated-fried rock shrimp were light and ungreasy and the only complaint about the spicy tuna crispy rice cakes is that there isn't enough of them (4 per serving).

Although the popular scallops with kiwi, udon seafood boullabaise and Katsuya roll also sounded good, we went with the grilled chicken meatball ($5) and steak-wrapped asparagus ($6) robata skewers since we were seated at the robata grill. The dessert of the day (purple potato mousse with brown sugar) didn't appeal so we went with the flourless chocolate cake a la mode, which was ok but not amazing.

The accompanying cocktails we sampled included the spicy-sweet Burning Mandarin (Mandarin vodka, citrus juices and Serrano chilies in a sugar-rimmed martini glass), Watermelon-Cucumber Mojito and White Grape Martini (all $11). Oh, and if you want water with your meal (free water that is), asking for "flat" won't suffice, make sure to specify "tap" or you'll end up unwittingly shelling out $10 for a bottle of Voss water.

Last night was a tasty dining experience, but with a $130 bill for two, you get the feeling that you're paying for the scene as much as for the food. Not to mention, also for some overpriced "flat" water.

**for more sushi pics, check out

1777 San Vicente Blvd., Brentwood

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

(Almost) Homemade Pizza & Banana Cake for about the same as a Domino's 3-for-$15 Special

In the need of a creatively thrifty yet activity-laden dinner date, I decided to plan a (sort of) homemade pizza-making party shindig last night. It only takes 45 minutes of shopping/prep time and about 15 bucks for your chance to explore your inner-pizza topping artistry.

Although you can use this simple pizza dough recipe, given my (lack of) culinary skills, I figured it was a safer bet to just buy my dough from a local pizza joint. I picked up a ball of dough at Paisano's in Hermosa Beach; most chain pizza places don't sell ready-made dough but many mum'n'pop stores are cool with it. I bought a couple balls of dough ($2 per ball; each yielding two medium pizzas) and also picked up Paisano's pizza sauce ($2.50)--like I said, I was almost making my homemade pizza from home. Perhaps sensing I needed help, the friendly folks at Paisano's even took me behind the counter for a quick lesson in pizza-dough shaping ( lift the dough from one end and gently pinch and rotate between your thumbs in a circular motion). $10 at the supermarket covered the toppings; bacon, pineapple, green pepper, red onion, pepperoni, olives and mozzarella.
If you have pre-made dough--and aren't concerned with a perfectly round-shaped pizza--it is super fast and easy. We were able to shape our dough and load it with toppings during the Bears/Seahawks halftime with plenty of time to spare. Meanwhile, to satisfy our appetizer munchies, and immature sense of humor, we also rolled boobie-shaped dough balls. At 350F; it's about 12 mins for the boob balls (roll them around in olive oil and then sprinkle with oregano-type herbs) and 20 mins for the pizza.
A Pair of Herbed Boobie Dough Balls

Taking advantage of my rare Susie Homemaker mood--as well as my bunch of overly ripe bananas--I also decided to make banana cake from scratch for dessert. I perused and picked the recipe with the most positive comments, simple ingredients and basic instructions (this one has only 3 steps). Cutting the sugar by half and shaving off some of the butter, the recipe yielded a super-moist, not overly-sweet and heaps banana-ry banana cake; tasty enough to earn requests for 2nd and 3rd helpings. Even if, like me, you're not a 'cookin'in'the'kitchen type of person, with this basic homemade pizza and banana cake combo, you can totally fake it for a night.


Not Sharing Tapas @ Vinoteca Brazilian Tapas Wine Bar

I haven't dined in Los Feliz for a while but after enduring a particularly taxing 2hr cross-town commute from Santa Monica to Silverlake during rush hour, Melissa and I were too hungry to drive any further without eating first. Based on a friend's suggestion, we headed to Vinoteca Farfalla in Los Feliz--a Brazilian tapas and wine bar offshoot from Farfalla Trattoria next door which mixes Italian charcuterie platters with South American dishes from other next door neighbor Tropicalia. Although it's probably pretty known and popular on the Eastside, it's unpretentious and intimate enough to still feel like a secret neighbor spot for the rest of us.

Hungry from the daytrip-length drive, we skipped the intimate cocktail tables (not enough room to fit our anticipated large orders) and sat at the bar. The corridor-shaped bar's exposed brick, wood bar counter and chocolate-colored walls felt instantly cozy. With close to 50 by-the-glass wines (almost all priced $12 or less), and many more options by the bottle, Vinoteca's winelist is impresssive. Melissa ordered a glass of Prosecco while I picked the Primitivo Muga off the blackboard purely based on the name (there's a tapa's spot on Abbot Kinney called Primitivo that I really like), luckily, it also happened to one of the bartender's recommendations.

Although the plates are made for sharing, with Melissa being vegetarian and me not able to turn down Brazilian-style meat--and us both starving since the long drive delayed dinner plans--we each ordered appetizers as well as our own individual mains even though the entrees were listed as "for two to share". My white fish and shrimp ceviche in cilantro-lime and corn chips in a super-sized martini glass was a little on the salty side, but strangely addictive enough that I still ate three-quarters of it. Melissa's Insalatina Brasiliana, a heaping appetizer of baby greens, avocado and hearts of palm was so filling, she never made it to her veggie combo main. She had her entire veggie combo entree with black beans, rice, polenta, grilled veggies and plantains boxed up to go.

I, on the other hand, had no problem eating for two and was able to also dig into my Braziribs entree; the braised, boneless shortribs coated in peppery spices came in a mini-skillet over pan-fried polenta and was topped with a wonderfully doughy cheesy-bread ball.

Although stuffed, we could have been swayed if there was a standout dessert, but the ho-hum selection (creme brulee, chocolate cake, tiramisu) didn't leave a sweet enough impression. We decided to skip dessert and order the banana-chocolate bread pudding with caramel-whiskey sauce on the side (as good as it sounds and only $5 for a heaping wedge) from The Kettle by my apt instead (sustenance after our post-dinner drive home from Los Feliz to the South Bay, we figured).

Vinoteca is definitely a good spot for a casually sophisticated dinner, and judging by the clientele, an ideal date spot (everyone besides the two women next to us were a couple). The bill came out to $78 including three glasses of wine; which--bearing in mind we ordered double the food we should have for just the two of us--translates to a pretty affordable dinner for four.

Vinoteca Farfalla
1968 Hillhurst Ave., Los Feliz

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Passing Gas: Find Cheap Gas Near Where You Live

Just what is says: Find Cheap Gas Near Where You Live.

Although gas has finally hit the $2-something mark for the first time in months, it's always nice to find a good cheap gas deal. My friend passed along this site to me, and in the interests of spreading the cheap(er) gas love, I'm passing it along to you.

It's pretty self-explanatory, just sign up (you don't get spam for signing up) and receive a daily email with the most updated gas prices around your area, or for the casual gas-price browser who doesn't want extra daily emails, there's

With the pennies saved, you don't need to feel guilty using excess energy by driving with both your AC on and your windows down. ahh, such a guilty pleasure.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

More Free Wi-Fi'ing from My Laptop-Lovin' L.A. Travels

My current obsession--surpassing even my love for chocolate souffles and my many repeated listenings Carli Bruni's "Quelqu'un M'a Dit" album from 3yrs ago (check it, it's good)--is finding free internet access around town for me and my traveling laptop. As a freelance writer, I like to think of my home office as HQ and these various coffee shops as my multiple satellite offices. Besides, who wants to drive home just to check email?

Although I am still a regular at several of these free wi-fi offering coffee shops which I highlighted in an earlier blog (esp. Venice Grind, which has fixed their Mac connection problems and Coral Tree Cafe--more for their food--although, be warned, they turn off their web access during peak lunch hours between 11am-3pm), I've slowly added several more to my rotation in my laptop travels around L.A.

My most recent discovery (and where I am writing this free wi-fi roundup right now, pic. above) is the snazzed up Santa Monica Library's BOOKMARK CAFE. I actually was there to check out some books when I noticed a smattering of laptop-users typing in the sun at the outdoor courtyard cafe. (The library's cafe also has a couple of indoor tables for those who need access to a power outlet.) In addition to fancy sandwiches, salads and wraps (eg. I ordered a tasty grilled turkey wrap with sundried tomato, artichokes and provolone) which hover around $7.50, the cafe also has ice-cream and smoothies. Underground parking is $1/hr. The revamped library also has one hour free internet computers upstairs, one of the best selections of new and random books in the L.A. public library system and a high-tech key-card for borrowers to self check out books with one easy swipe.

Another on the Westside is ROSE CAFE on Rose and Main, the actual cafe doesn't have internet access but if you sit in the coffee shop portion of the bakery and cafe by the in-store boutique, you can risk docking off a few good karma points and pick up the free wi-fi from Radha Govinda Hare Krishna temple across the road. Since Rose Cafe is technically a restaurant, they have good (poached salmon florentine, thai noodle salad, pesto chicken sandwiches, cakes!), but slightly pricier brunch and lunch options (salads/sandwiches/hot meals around $8+). The cafe closes at 5pm so you'll have to move on elsewhere if you're working overtime hours.

When I'm in the Hollywood area, my hands-down favorite is GROUNDWORK COFFEE on Cahuenga and Sunset. The spot is home home to plentiful table and bench seating, corner windows facing Amoeba and the Arclight for quality people-watching work breaks, strong tea and coffee drink selection, friendly and honest servers that'll tell you they personally think the chocolate chip tofu muffin is gross and exchangeable if I also find it gross (I actually didn't mind it) and at least 5 other mac users furiously typing at any given time so you don't feel like you're the only one milking an ice blended mocha for 3hrs for their free wi-fi. Parking is the only drawback, but if you're doing 2hr stints, Sunset metered parking is doable, otherwise some random spots on DeLongpre and Wilcox before you enter permit parking land.

KUNG PAO KITTY a couple blocks up on Hollywood & Wilcox also has free wi-fi but the one time I brought my laptop in for an emailing session over seasame chicken, it felt odd to be working away in a chinese takeout spot.

If you're on the Eastside and need a quick email check on-the-go, the parking lot of the Gower Gulch strip mall (Sunset & Gower) is also good for a quick log-on in your car. I haven't figured out where the free intenet comes from since I parked right in front of the Starbucks and they make their patron's pay through AT&T wireless.

Here are a few others that offer free wi-fi. Personally, for some reason, I haven't been able to get into the productive mindset at these spots (I've had to leave most of these spots after logging in a couple hours of surfing the web and zero hours of productive work ) but they might work for others so here they are: VELOCITY CAFE (Venice), TANNER'S COFFEE (Playa del Rey), STROH'S GOURMET DELI (Venice), RUMOR MILL CAFE (Culver City), Ciao Coffee & Tea Company (Sherman Oaks).

BOOKMARK CAFE @ Santa Monica Library
601 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica, 310/587-2665

220 Rose Ave, Venice, 310/399.0711

1501 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood, 323/871-0107

6445 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. 323/465-0110

Sunday, September 10, 2006

8 Mile West L.A. Style: MC Battle at 33Third

I've apparently been driving past a piece of Detroit many times along Pico Blvd without realizing it. Last Saturday night, I accepted Chaya’s invite to check out a “DJ-off” that her friend was hosting. Because it sounded like a refreshing change from a typical bar-hopping night--but mainly because we didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into--we decided to hit up 33Third (the venue) on Pico & La Brea to check out the event.

I was imagining some grungy lounge filled with breakdance-capable clubgoers set up with two rival DJ’s alternating between scratching their vinyls on their turntables and then crossing their arms and daring his challenger with a "top that!" cock of an eyebrow.

Maybe we should have read the flyer properly, 33Thirdwas a vinyl store (with a great selection of bargain records by the way) not a bar, so besides the bottles of whiskey being questionably passed around and chugged by the crowd, there was no alcohol. And it wasn’t a DJ-Off but an amateur MC Battle, a la 8 Mile, which is essentially contestants insulting each other to a rap beat.

The crowd was initially intimating enough for us to consider bolting, and we definitely stood out (about 5 other girls total and none were dressed in heels and cleavagey tops like Chaya, Nikki and I, as opposed to the popular sideways cap and wifebeater look going on that night) but the guy manning the door was surprisingly friendly (“are you girls entering the contest tonight? We need more female MC contestants” without any trace of the deserved sarcasm in that question.)

Chaya’s friend/owner of the store pulled us up to the VIP area by the judges so we got a prime viewing spot of the mouthy battle. The Eminem for the night was actually a female. Lady DJ endured multiple harsh personal insults from her fellow male contestants—“I’m going to buy you a glass of milk/watch you drink it and watch your breasts grow” was a memorable line courtesy of DJ Shoe”—only to unleash a tirade of clever put-downs with double the ferocity. We didn’t stay till the end to see if she got crowned but she was the judges clear favorite when we left our brush with 8 Mile and headed to the Dime for some chill, post-MC Battle vodka tonics.

5111 West Pico Blvd., 3 blocks W of La Brea

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Museum-Hopping for $0: LACMA & MOCA's Free Museum Hours

I like the idea of going to museums. But honestly, I can only take my cultural excursions in small doses (1 1/2hrs tops). And although I'm all for supporting the arts, if I'm only going to be there for less than two hours and my schedule permits it, why not nurture my artistic side at no extra cost by visiting the museum during their freebie hours?

My whirlwind brush with zero-cost culture included trips to both the MOCA and LACMA within one week. An out of town guest wanted to check out downtown MOCA's Rauschenberg: Combines exhibit (which just ended on Sept. 4th). The MOCA keeps kinda weird hours (closed Tues. and Wed.) but if you head there on Thursday nights, it's free after 5pm (and open til 8pm). The downside is parking; street parking is next to impossible so the museum recommends parking at the Walt Disney Concert Hall parking garage on Lower Grand Ave ($8 for 3hrs with vaildation) but if you're willing to walk a block, there's a no-hassle lot on the corner of 2nd/Olive for $6 flat.

To the untrained eye (mine), Rauschenberg: Combine's exhibit was all about, uh, combining as much stuff onto the canvas as possible. His collages with pants, taxidermied bald eagles and pieces of wire glued onto large canvases and all slicked thick with oil paints wasn't really my thing but the MOCA's permanent collection including pieces by Jackson Pollack (below), Roy Lichtenstein and whoever convinced the artsy types that blank canvases were high-brow (also below) are worth checking out on their own regardless of the headlining temporary exhibit going on at the time.

A few days later, I visited the LACMA on Labor Day (which is free after 5pm every day). We skipped the David Hockney portraits exhibit (which has a separate un-free admission fee) and headed to LACMA's permanent collection. The Ahmanson Building houses classical art (Rembrandt, Renoir, Cezanne, Gauguin) as well as ancient Egyptian tomb artifacts, hundreds-old European vases and the like.

The Modern and Contemporary Art building contains colorful works by Picasso, Pollack, Ruscha, DuChamp and Magritte--as well as a beautiful 3rd story balcony view of the sunset over the Hollywood hills.

However, the highlight was the Consider This... Exhibit in the LACMA West building (yes, it's technically LACMA's 'children's museum' but the highly interactive, highly thought-provoking exhibit was highly entertaining for all ages). Designed by artist Barbara Kruger (famous for her artistic slogans juxtaposed against provocative images) the exhibit--which runs through January '07--includes pithy quotes lining the walls ('Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy'-Henry Mencken, 'How Much Easier is Self-Sacrifice than Self-Realization!'-Eric Hoffer) and installations with sharpies inviting visitors to become part of the exhibit by adding their mark on certain art pieces or adding to the wall of anwers to questions such as "what is important to you right now?".

With easy street parking and convenient, late-night free hours, it's definitely worth popping into LACMA after work hours to check out the exhibits or even just to enjoy the peaceful dusky sunset views from the museum balcony.

free Thursdays after 5pm
free everyday after 5pm
Natural History Museum
free first Tuesdays of the month
always free

For those who have more specialized artistic interests, the following niche museums are participating in National Museum Day on September 30th, offering free admission all day:
California Science Center, Craft and Folk Museum, Museum of Neon Art and last but certainly not the least, The Bunny Museum.

Friday, September 01, 2006

coco noche: Getting buzzed off chocolate and wine

I like wine bars (Bodega deCordova), they're even better when you add tapas (La Tasca). but when you throw in gourmet chocolates and caramel wine pairings, now you're talking.

coco noche's decadent-sounding sign caught my eye even before this new chocolate, wine and tapas bar in downtown Manhattan Beach opened. coco noche. chocolate nights. Chocolate at night time with alcohol. I'm in.

Chrissy and I made a visit to this perfect-sounding spot last night. The intimate little choco-wine bar is unpretentious (warm and simple cream and wood decor, friendly accommodating servers, a touch too-bright lighting) with unpretentious prices (you can eat and drink well for easily under $30)

The menu lists the chocolate and desserts first, with the tapas on the following page. As ladies who have often planned our entree and appetizer choices around dessert ("we could get the pomegranate-glazed lamb but is that going to be pomegranate overload since we're for sure ordering their yummy sounding pomegranate and creme anglais parfait?"), we liked how this place thinks.

Although we both wanted to follow the menu and skip straight to the sweet stuff, we ordered a couple dinner items first. The tapas are not of the spanish kind but have more of a korean &/or cafe flavor. Sounds odd but works, especially since several of the chocolates are flavored with an Asian influence. We shared the basil chicken salad (with a refreshing cucumber and mint yogurt rather than mayo) on a toasted croissant with an Asian side salad ($9) and the specialty bul-gogi korean seasoned beef lettuce wraps with sticky rice ($12). Both were good, but really, it's all about the chocolate here.

The chocolate morsels are courtesy of exotic chocolatier, Vosges Haute Chocolate. They have two sets of tasting flights with 3 chocolates and 3 wines. With choices such as RED FIRE: dark chocolate spiced with chipotle chili peppers and Ceylon cinnamon, BLACK PEARL: chocolate flecked with ginger, wasabi and black sesame and GOJI BERRY: Tibetan sweet berries and pink Himalayan salt embedded chocolate, we had trouble trying to figure out which set of three we wanted. Our accommodating waiter helped ease the decision-making pain by giving us a couple of samples and letting us mix and match whichever three chocolates and wines we wanted. You can also get desserts by the piece and those ordering their alcohol a la carte will find an extensive selection of affordable (most $9 or under) by-the-glass options as well as specialty beers including the delicious raspberry Frambois beer.

We picked the first, sweeter, flight of wines (Ravenswood Zinfandel, Riesling and cream Sherry) over the heartier Coppola Pinot Noir, Santa Rosa Merlot and Banfi dessert wine and picked the Red Fire (the spicy chocolate was our favorite), Black Pearl and Barcelona (hickory-smoked almonds with fleur del sey gray sea salt). They also had chocolate caramels infused with flavors such as orange and ginger but since sticky caramels are a no-no for my still slightly ailing wisdom teeth, we also ordered their so-airily-light-it-must-be-zero-calories Key Lime torte with white and milk chocolate instead.

Only open for seven days so far, coco noche's menu, decor and specials are still evolving but they are working with a sweet concept; getting patrons buzzed off both sugar and drinks--two things I love, so me, my ID and my sweet tooth are looking forward to future, chocolate-coated drunken nights.

coco noche
1140 Highland Ave, Manhattan Beach

Friday, August 25, 2006

Jamoca Almond Fudge for my Luke Wilson-esque Jawline: Wise Wisdom Teeth Relief

The best $1.69 I've spent this week. Well, the only $1.69 I've spent this week.

Me and my freakishly puffy, Luke Wilson-esque jawline have been under self-imposed house arrest since my wisdom teeth extraction on Monday.

Going a little stir-crazy in my 450 sq ft apt, I finally found a reason important enough for my first public outing all week--Baskin Robbins.

Braving imagined scenarios of the general public shielding their children's eyes, looking away aghast or staring in spite of themselves at my monstrous, gravity-defying swollen cheeks which have temporarily rendered me with no chin, I donned on a hopefully cheek-hiding hat and headed straight for the store to order an ice-cold, soothing Baskin Robbin's kiddie cup--no cone since I can't bite crunchy objects yet. The ice-cream melted in my mouth like sweet, pain-numbing liquid-vicadin for my inner-cheeks...mmm. Despite the fact that I picked a flavor with hard nuts that I have to spit out (Jamoca Almond Fudge), ordering the delicious blend of fudge and 'jamoca' was definitely the wisest thing I've done since losing some of my wisdom earlier this week.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Debut of Adventure Sundays: Santa Anita Hike & Din Tai Fung Dumplings

When Chaya and Chrissy asked if I was in for Adventure Sunday, even without knowing what that entailed, I was in. How could I turn down something called Adventure Sunday?

Their proposed activities to make Sunday more Adventurous started off with a hike in the Arcadia's Santa Anita Canyons followed by "the best dumplings in L.A.". An unorthodox pairing but Chrissy has talked up these dumplings for a while and if hiking beforehand is a good excuse to drive to far-away Arcadia to enjoy the dumplings, so be it.

According to Chrissy's Wild L.A. hiking book, the Santa Anita Loop is listed as one of L.A.'s top hikes to take out-of-towners --and why should tourists be the only ones exploring the best of LA? The hike also earned 5 stars and many positive comments on the same website where I found our Malibu hiking & dirty pond swimming adventure a month ago.

Never really going east of Los Feliz for spots like Home, Alcove and Good Luck Bar, driving to Arcadia via the 405, 10, 110, and 210 freeways seemed like a mini-adventure in itself.

We exited the 210 off Santa Anita Ave and headed up the windy mountain to Chantry Flats. There aren't any "yes keep going, you ARE supposed to drive up the mountain for a ways" signs so just as you're wondering if you've gone too far up the mountain, yes, keep going, you ARE supposed to drive up the mountain for a ways. You'll soon see a parking lot with a small Chantry Flats sign on your right.

The map we got from the general store gave us three hiking options, a nice 4 mile roundtrip hike to some waterfalls and back, a 5 mile waterfall-less but still picturesque loop with 12 river crossings and old cabins or an ambitious 9 mile loop which encompassed the waterfall plus more. We opted for the waterfall hike with the option to continue on with the 9 mile loop if Chaya, Chrissy, Rachel and myself all suddenly had a personality change and became psycho-obsessed hikers.

Immediately, the woodsy--and thankfully shaded--surroundings make this mountain hike very different from the typical dry, hot and unshaded L.A. canyon hikes (a la Runyon). The fun rock-hopping creek crossings and changing terrain past the time quickly and we made it to the waterfall in 45 mins.

In a delusional, "we're so outdoorsy!" moment, we decided to forge ahead with the 9 mile loop. Multiple uphill turns and twists lead us through deeply shaded woody areas, up along narrow (and apparently poison oak-lined trails) mountain ridges with beautiful views of next door neighbor mountain ranges, back down towards wood-shaded creeks and abandoned cabins from the early 1900's and more uphill hiking until we got to Spruce Campground.

According to our poorly scaled map, we had maybe 1 (or just as easily 5) uphill miles to go before the half way point. With our growingly loud growling tummies, we decided to turn back. We trudged back quickly, fueled by the thought of dumplings. Towards the end, we ran into a park ranger who said when we turned back we were only 1/2 a mile away from Sturdevant Camp (the halfway point) which has an amazing view overlooking all the mountains. Darn. Oh well, next time. Besides, by turning back early, we were still 1/2 a mile closer to dinner so we didn't regret our decision. The last .6 miles is pure 60 degree incline agony. Dumplings, dumplings,

We shot down the mountain back onto 210, 2 exits later (Baldwin Ave) we were at the famed Din Tai Fung Dumpling House. This Taipei-based restaurant--who has a team of dumpling-masters in the glass-encased kitchen handmaking fresh dumplings to order--is known for their exceptional dumpling wrapper consistency, best compared as that perfect, al dente bite of fresh, homemade pasta. The ever-present line is intimidating but goes fast (the line in the photo is the equivalent of 20 minutes), and faster still if you can't wait and have to go next door for a fruit smoothie made with real fruit (my peach icy was good but Chrissy's ice blended cantalope juice was better. 2 for the price of one! $3.75!)

Ordering the majority of the menu, we dug into 6 trays of 10 dumplings each between the 4 of us. Oh, plus shrimp noodle soup and two sauteed plates of broccoli and spinach. Between the chicken, fish, vege (cabbage, shiitake mushroom and silver noodles) and their signature juicy pork, the house specialty dumplings were my favorite. A tender pork and leek meatball swimming in its own broth, encased in an individual yielding pasta parcel. While there is a trick to eating these without dripping away the yummy juice, (directions are on the chopstick wrapper), my preferred way was dip it into the ginger/vinegar sauce and plop the whole dumpling in my mouth. We finished off with dessert dumplings--sweet red beans inside the steamed, mochi-like wrapper. (For more dumpling descriptions and pics, check out Hungry Hedonist's detailed review.)

Yeah, we may have gorged on an unnecessary share of dumplings, but they were small, surprisingly light and quite delish--not to mention twice as tasty when you know you've already pre worked them off on a hard 8 mile hike. This was definitely a strong debut for our proposed monthly Adventure Sundays.

Big Santa Anita Loop: $5 for parking pass
Din Fan tang Dumpling House: $60 for way too much food for 4 people (which, granted we did finished)
1108 S. Baldwin Ave. Cross street: W. Duarte Rd, Arcadia. 626.574-7068
Boba Tea and Juice place next door: $3.75 for two real fruit smoothies
Adventure Sunday: $23 per person!